By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A winter holiday story doesn’t have to have a decorated tree or a festive celebration. Though this one does. More important is that it unites families, on and off stage, and creates warmth in the heart during cold winter months. “Little Women,” at Seattle Rep until Dec. 17, does just that.
“Holiday time is about nostalgia and bringing people together,” said Cy Paolantonio, who plays Meg and is also the production’s movement director. “Theater at this time of year is great for that. You’ve got family members visiting or wanting to find things to do together. Going to see a classic reenacted is a smart way to celebrate the winter holidays.” The story does have an arc that includes the holidays, so “people will be pleased” to hear “a touch of Christmas music” and “see some garlands.” In addition, the Rep itself is “turned out” for the season.
“Little Women,” published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, is a well-loved story by Louisa May Alcott that takes place during the Civil War (1861-1865) in the U.S. The classic tale of a family of sisters and their mother managing for themselves while their father is away still strikes a chord today and has seen many iterations in film and theater.
“We always watched the 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn and the 1949 version with June Allyson and Liz Taylor.” The heartthrob was played by Peter Lawford—“I had such a crush on him!” Paolantonio admits.
Her journey with this story has made her wonder, “Is there such a thing as fate?” because “it has played such a crucial role in my life.” Just like the March sisters play act to entertain themselves, Paolantonio and her sisters “used to reenact scenes from the movie. No one wanted to play Beth,” she said laughing (it’s not a spoiler if a book was written in the 19th century and we all know Beth’s sad fate).
“I was always Meg, as the oldest,” Paolantonio continued. “My sister has the ‘Jo’ personality traits. The youngest one played ‘Amy’ and she very much [has] the youngest child traits.” (It’s a thing, by the way, to figure out which sister we most relate to, though there are pieces of all of them in all of us, which is part of what makes “Little Women” timeless.)
Growing up, Paolantonio favored her creative and showmanship side. She wanted to be a dancer. However, her hard working parents did not approve. Her father has Welsh, Portuguese, African American, and Canadian Algonquin ancestry. Her mother emigrated from Hong Kong at the age of 17. The whole neighborhood pooled together to make that happen. Going into dance, then, was considered a “waste of money,” Paolantonio recalled. Instead, she went into music, playing cello and piano—which her parents still had reservations about, but at least classical music was a more traditional route—and in high school, she had the opportunity to attend a magnet arts school.
“The acting program was rigorous and serious,” she explained and, since the drive was so far—48 minutes—and her parents wanted to darn well take advantage of everything the school had to offer, she “finally got to take dance classes.”
Paolantonio became sought after as a dancer, making a case for anyone who wants to start a craft later in life. She has been in music videos and has worked as a choreographer at the Kennedy Center, as well as here in Seattle. Movement director, her production role in “Little Women,” is similar to a choreographer but for theater.
“The director and I talked a lot about how we bring my lens, my understanding of movement, into this world.” In addition to music or dance numbers, Paolantonio helped determine the actors’ movements, such as when they needed to rearrange furniture. This close involvement creates a unity and fluidity in the production.
The Rep is always trying new things to push the envelope and support diversity and “Little Women” is no different. This version was adapted by Kate Hamill, whose “Sense and Sensibility” has been called one of the greatest retellings of the story of all time.
“What’s so fascinating about this work and Kate Hamill’s work…is she vigorously retools classics,” Paolantonio explained. As “present-day Americans, there’s a dialogue now around subjects like gender…identity, class, and touching upon race.”
This coming of age story holds a lot more than initially meets the eye.
“We have a lot of work [left] to do, of course we do, but the way Hamill has written this…I hope it will stimulate some conversations and bridge the gap between multiple generations.” For instance, in the story, the sisters call each other brother and they wear men’s clothes.
“They didn’t have the tools of language to say, ‘Hey, I’m trans,’ though they were. It’s amazing that we’re able to explore that here.” And they were women who ‘wore the pants,’ as the saying goes. With the men away at war, the sisters did everything a father or a brother would have done in those times. Paolantonio hopes that audiences will come together over these types of issues shown in the story.
For herself, as the oldest of her siblings, Paolantonio relates closely to Meg, who is also the oldest and, Paolantonio has determined, a Taurus, the same as herself. Like Meg, she “was charged with the task of helping to raise my younger sisters. My parents worked a lot. From very early on, I was hands on, helping with diapers, helping prepare meals and snacks, babysitting.” Meg is a complicated character whose love of fine things is made much of by reviewers. Paolantonio brings what was probably the originally intended depth to the role.
“She’s so pragmatic but she’s also such a romantic…She loves love. She loves beauty and beautiful things. They are growing up without a lot,” and Meg’s love of luxury creates in her a lot of “guilt” when there are terrible things happening at home and around the world. Like we said, relatable.
Once upon a time, a young girl was given a blank check and a spending limit to take to the Scholastic Book Fair. There, this responsible 7-year-old who had dreams of performing on a stage, saw a thick yellow paperback with an image of four girls on the cover, each with her “own personality.” She was drawn to the author’s name (“I was born in May”) and an instant connection was made. “Little Women” has been with Paolantonio ever since, as if it was a part of her destiny from the start to act in it now, here in Seattle.
“When I submitted my audition video, I was taking my kid to the library,” she recalled. “We’re roaming the fiction aisle and right there is the unabridged hardback of ‘Little Women.’ Is this a sign?”
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.seattlerep.org/plays/202324-season/little-women/.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.